Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Valentine's Day Peposo

During my career as a teacher, I used to make this dish every year on a wintery day in February when my colleagues and I were at the end of our rope: the snow, the cold, the noisy, restless boys in our classrooms. It was comforting to get together, relaxing around a blazing fire as we inevitably talked shop...those boys we taught were never far from our minds. The Peposo filled our bellies and the wine brought a lighthearted silliness difficult to attain (nor would it have been recommendable) in the seriousness of our regular school setting.

This snowy Saturday, I prepared it as our Valentine's dinner to share with our cousins.

Peposo's origins are associated with the building of Brunelleschi's Duomo. Whether it's true or not, the story goes that the tiles used for the Duomo came from nearby Impruneta, an area famous to this day for its terra cotta. In Impruneta, the tile makers were in the habit of cooking this peppery, wine drenched meat in their tile making kilns. When the Duomo was built, many of these same laborers, hired to build the Duomo, cooked their Peposo all morning long, while they worked in the dizzying heights above the ground. When it was ready, the Peposo was sent up by a pulley so they could avoid the dangerous trip down.

Peposo for 6 persons

Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 3 to 4 hours


  • 5 lbs chuck roast
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper (you may want to adjust this to your taste)
  • 1 tablespoon pepper corns
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • dry red wine, enough to cover the meat when ready to start cooking (about two bottles)
  • 5 bay leaves (I used fresh bay leaves, but you can use dry)
  • Olive oil for browning the meat

  1. Chop the meat into large cubes, taking care to remove fat as much as you are able to.
  2. Brown the cubes of meat with the garlic cloves in the olive oil over a medium flame, but remove the garlic cloves before they start to burn. Do this a few pieces at a time so you don't crowd your pot while you're doing this.
  3. Replace all the pieces of meat in the pot, add the bay leaves, salt, pepper corns, ground pepper, and the wine.
  4. Turn up the heat until it begins to boil, and lower until it begins to simmer. Place a lid on the pot, but leave it cracked open a bit so there is some evaporation.
  5. Stir every so often to be sure all the meat is getting cooked in the wine. After 3 or 4 hours, it will be ready, with a velvety, peppery sauce and meat that is tender and edible with a fork but still maintaining its form.

Note: You may want to prepare it a day ahead, and separate the meat chunks from the liquid in the pot. After you refrigerate it overnight, you can separate the fat that may appear on the surface of the liquid and then recombine the meat with the liquid and reheat before you serve it. I prepared an herbed polenta to go with it.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Camotes con Leche - Sweet Potatoes with milk

I retired from 30+ years of teaching a year an a half ago. Recently I went back for a day to sub for a sick colleague. Ah! the energy it takes to teach, but it's nice to come home with no papers to grade. Here's a post I wrote while I was still teaching. It's worth reposting, since camotes or sweet potatoes are available at farmer's markets everywhere right now.

As a teacher at a boys' school where we sit at the table with our students for lunch, I have an unusual opportunity to observe the appetites of these hungry boys. There are those boys who are willing to eat the meals prepared by the school staff, which on most days are healthy, tasty, and presented appetizingly. Then there are the boys who perplex me with their fixation on eating the same cold sandwich of processed meat, rubbery cheese or a limp peanut butter and jelly, day after day. To me the question is whether this is nature or nurture. Does early exposure to different foods, their natural colors, textures, and smells make a difference for a child's developing appetite? Is it like a second language where if you get it early enough, you internalize it?

I am not a nutritionist, a pediatrician, nor a child psychologist, so I'm left to ponder this. I do know that as a child of my generation and region (the border to Mexico), I had no choice but to eat food in its most natural state. My mother didn't have the choice of reaching into a pantry filled with several varieties of Corn Flakes, Fruit Loops, or Lucky Charms; and actually, I'm thankful for that. In the winter, our breakfast might be atole de avena or maís. Another favorite was a poached egg in its shell with the top broken off (to be used as its own cup) with salt and pepper stirred into it with a toothpick. Not to be beaten for its basic simplicity was the baked sweet potato smashed into a bowl of cold milk my mother often served us. The texture of the sweet potato, or camote, as it is called in nahuatl, was smooth and creamy; the color was bright orange or straw colored and the taste of the cold milk against the steamy-hot sweet potato created an odd hot/cold sensation that added to the magic of this taste.

As it turns out, many nutritionists, including those at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) believe that the single most important dietary change for children would be to replace fatty foods with foods rich in complex carbohydrates, such as...yes...the very plain and simple camotes we ate when we were little. According to the CSPI, sweet potatoes are considered at the top of the nutritional scale among vegetables. They are high in dietary fiber with naturally occurring sugars, protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.

So, I submit that eating well doesn't need to be complicated, and teaching your child to be curious about food doesn't have to be impossible. And starting early is key. But, as a caveat, I would also venture to say that, for your three year old, the presence of colorful boxes and bags in your pantry might possibly be too much competition. Or maybe not.

Camotes con Leche

Recipe Type: Breakfast

Prep time: 5 mins

Cook time: 1 hour 30 mins

Total time: 1 hour 35 mins

Serves: 4

  • Sweet potatoes, whatever quantity you prefer
  • Milk, to add to the bottom of your bowl of hot, smashed sweet potatoes

  1. Bake the sweet potatoes at 350 degrees for about 1 hour or more, until they are completely soft and the peel begins to separate from the sweet potato

  2. Spoon some of the sweet potato into a bowl of milk and smash it so that it more or less blends with the milk.


I prefer to buy the thin purple skinned sweet potatoes in the belief they are sweeter and faster to bake since they're not huge.

Bake a large quantity and keep them in foil in your refrigerator for up to a week until you're ready to heat them quickly in the oven.

Monday, January 19, 2015


Here is a repost of my interview of Adriana Legaspi, a fascinating personage involved in ethnographic rescue of the native gastronomy of Mexico. Her Gastrotour of Malinalco is a must if you travel to Mexico City. We recently talked about collaborating on tours to other, lesser known parts of Mexico, like Merida and Puebla to bring the knowledge of those pre-Hispanic cuisines to our respective followers both in Mexico and the U.S.

There is a movement afoot in Mexico to preserve the traditions of its indigenous cuisine and the ancient knowledge of the use of curative herbs. It involves the rescue and preservation of the ingredients, methods, and utensils common in the pre-Columbian past of Mesoamerica in the hopes that they do not flicker out of existence in our lifetime. With globalization and the proliferation of fast food franchises, it is no surprise that these ancient traditions are becoming a distant memory. In twenty-five years, who will know how to prepare tecorral tea, muicle, tlacoyos, or tamales de atepocate or know what they are, for that matter?

Enter Adriana Legaspi, founder of Gastrotour Prehispánico Malinalco, an anthropologist of the palate and a woman on a mission to preserve these traditions. She is neither the first nor the only person in Mexico bent on what Adriana calls 'the ethnogastronomic rescue'  but she certainly stands out in her passion and conviction.

A multi-faceted business woman who is not only proficient in the kitchen, Adriana also has degrees in communications, political science, and public affairs. Many years ago, she and her husband purchased a weekend home in the cobble-stoned mountain village of Malinalco outside of Mexico City. Adriana found herself in her element, naturally drawn to the wizened old 'doñas' in the ancient market of Malinalco, chatting, learning recipes, and listening to their stories of old times and ways.

With encouragement from friends and with a penchant for social causes, Adriana founded a project which would direct her seemingly boundless energy towards two goals: to preserve the culture and identity of the region and to help the women with a much needed income. This was the genesis of the Gastrotour Prehispánico of Malinalco. The tour consists of a hands-on cooking class on weekends, starting with a visit to the market in Malinalco to buy organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs grown by the seller herself at zero kilometers. She invites her guests to observe the fauna and the flora depicted on a convent wall, thus ensuring a
thorough understanding of the historical backdrop of the food they are preparing.

What follows is the first of a two-part interview with Adriana about her work to preserve the Mexican identity through its prehispanic cuisine:

When did you first become interested in cooking?

The truth is that I'm a product of a generation that did not hold cooking in high regard because it was associated with a lack of culture or professional status. I am the first generation of female college graduates in a family where the women had always considered marriage and the running of a household as the first priority.  My sisters and cousins began to take on minor professions in banks. The more professional we felt, the more we shunned the kitchen. Nevertheless, I'm a descendent of Italian immigrants to Mexico on my father's side for whom food and its preparation were of utmost importance in daily life. The quantity, the quality, freshness, uniqueness, and delectability for a traditional community in Northern Mexico where we lived, set us apart. As soon as I began my career in the hospitality industry, my own personal history became relevant as I found myself charged with the responsibility of organizing unique dining experiences at the empresarial level.

How did you come to get involved in the gastronomic tours of prehispanic cuisine in Malinalco?

This is a very long story whose chapters played out slowly starting from the first moment I arrived in Malinalco with my husband over 20 years ago. In spite of the enormous cultural offerings we enjoyed living in Mexico City, on weekends we spilled out of the city in search of open spaces and fresh air. That's how we ended up in Malinalco on many a weekend enjoying lunch in the subtropical climate of this town 88 kms from Mexico City. 

We often ate at a restaurant called El Tecorral situated in a grand old house dating from the 17th century where we took in the gardens, the climate, and the people. Soon we found ourselves buying a property in a place where every neighborhood had its Caocalli or Teocalli typical of Indian villages with a prehispanic past. The Augustin monks who arrived in Malinalco to evangelize in the 16th century built the Convento de la Transfiguracieon del Señor and directed every barrio to have its own saint and chapel. Ours came with a chapel; we purchased it from a seller who still has a a Nahua surname: Donaciano de la Fuente Tecayahuatl. 

Little by little I became involved in the life of the town, admiring its geography, its ecology, and naturally, its cuisine. I became aware of the strength of its indigenous origins and the pride in its traditions evident in daily life. Imagine a prehispanic market where you can find tlacoyos, a type of oval tortilla filled with fava bean paste or ricotta spiced with chilies, cooked on a clay comal by vendors like Doña Carmen. I started, then, to make a mental inventory of all that grabbed my attention to begin my ethnographic research. I began interviewing the elders, finding and documenting ingredients, looking for their existence in a precolombian past. The rest came naturally. 

I felt the need to help the economic possibilities of the women of the market who rely on their own meager income. The weekend visitors were not necessarily buying their products; hence, the beginning of my classes: to teach my students the importance of this food, its contextualization, the value in its freshness, helping these students to understand who we are and why we eat as we do. Then, going home to turn the ingredients into a meal.

Why do you think it's important to get back to authentic roots in mexican cuisine?

First of all, because the Mesoamerican diet is healthy... and because to eat guided by prehispanic and Mesoamerican principles of when to eat something is healthy.  Eating guayabas before and during winter, for example, provides the body with the vitamin C necessary for the immunological system to withstand the freezing weather of the central high plains of Mexico.

What is the attitude and/or interest now of the professional (upper and middle) classes in Mexico regarding authentic prehispanic cuisine?

Well, in reality, I think there is growing interest throughout the world, among those who can afford it, to eat authentic and traditional food. The designation of Mexican food as a world heritage cuisine has made it stylish, and chefs throughout Mexico are recuperating the tastes and recipes, creating them with modern techniques and charging exhorbitant prices.

To be continued...

*Photos courtesy of Adriana Legaspi.

Check it out: goo.gl/cZ407b